Board Member Emeritus Fred R. Leventhal, who served Wittenberg for decades with the same energy, commitment and joy that made him a beloved Springfield civic leader, died Thursday, June 16, less than a week before far flung friends were planning to gather for a local celebration of his 95th birthday.
Considered by some as the last member of a golden generation of Springfield business leaders who also were philanthropists deeply committed to the community, Leventhal passed away six days after he was admitted to Springfield Regional Medical Center.
Dick Helton, Wittenberg’s Interim President, mirrored the remarks of so many Springfielders who mourned Leventhal:
"Fred was always a passionate advocate for Wittenberg and the City of Springfield. He loved his community and touched countless lives in positive, meaningful ways in his lifetime. He was -- and always will be -- an inspiring example of how people should live and lead their lives. He will be greatly missed."
Graduating from high school in 1939, during the depths of the Depression, Leventhal was prevented by circumstance from attending college and adopted Wittenberg as his own.
After playing a key role in the Campaign for Wittenberg of the late 1970s, Leventhal in 1984 began a 12-year stint on the Board. He and wife Maxine were named honorary alumni in 1987, a year after Wittenberg awarded Mr. Leventhal an Honorary Degree in Humane Letters.
For 34 years, the Leventhals have endowed the free Fred R. Leventhal Family Endowed Lecture series, which has brought luminaries to campus including historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, and, most recently, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristof.
Always an advocate for the have-nots, Leventhal was born June 22, 1921, the youngest of seven children raised in Cleveland by Jewish parents who had emigrated to escape persecution in Russia.
In 1939, when the family broom-making company could not support them all during the Great Depression, Leventhal and his late brother, Harry, bought the Vining Broom Co. on West High Street in Springfield, operating it out of a garage.
Fresh out of high school, Fred oversaw production while his brother sold brooms out of a panel truck.
“We were always hopeful that he would return with enough money for the payroll of all five employees,” Leventhal once said.
After their service in World War II, the Leventhals took advantage of the booming consumer economy and expanded by buying out small-town broom manufacturers with Fred in charge of the negotiations, conducted in his signature style.
“Every person I bought out became a good friend and recommended me to their neighbors down the road.”
He did not always experience such neighborly treatment in Springfield.
“Probably the greatest hurt I had was that I could not join the Junior Chamber of Commerce because I was Jewish,” he recalled.
“Early on, Springfield was a good community for a limited number of people,” he said. “My challenge was to make it a good place for more people.”
In March of 1947, Leventhal married Maxine Margolis of Dayton, and as the business grew, they raised two children, Todd, who worked with his father, and Fern, a pediatric neuropsychologist.
In 1959, Fred and Harry Leventhal led the push to build the current Temple Sholom, helping a congregation Rabbi Cary Kozberg called “one of the loves” of Fred Leventhal’s life.
Fred served as liaison between the congregation and the rabbi when Kozberg arrived fresh out of seminary in 1977 and was “the gold standard” for the position, the rabbi said.
As in business, “he was able to see the big picture that it was in the interests of both the rabbi and the congregation to see things were done as gently as possible,” Kozberg said.
The rabbi likened Leventhal to a godfather who taught him that so many of the issues that arose were business, not personal, although Leventhal tended to develop close personal relationships with those with whom he did business of any kind, including members of the Wittenberg community.
The year after the temple was built, Leventhal spotted an empty booth at a Chicago broom industry show where Standard Oil was to have promoted its synthetic fiber brooms and followed a hunch.
He discovered the company that had entered the market too early was looking to get out with a deadline for capital needed to invest in Alaskan oil fields. Anticipating a deal that was in the works might fall through, he positioned himself to buy the entire stock of the company’s broom inventory at a greatly reduced priced and used the money made selling the inventory to greatly expand Vining Broom.
“I wasn’t brilliant,” he said modestly, “I was just lucky.”
However he characterized it, his colleagues and competitors that year elected him president of the National Association of Broom Manufactures and Allied Industries. Eventually, Vining employed 650 people in four states.
When it came to donations for worthy projects, whether for his temple, his community or Wittenberg, “Nobody could say no to Fred,” said Springfield accountant Peter Hackett.
Hackett who said the same of Richard Kuss, a Springfielder whose generosity to Wittenberg was expressed in the naming of Barbara Deer Kuss Science Center, and who often worked hand-in-hand with Leventhal.
Hackett called Leventhal’s indomitable optimism both a hallmark and a strength.
“Even when he had setbacks in business, he was an optimist.”
During the 1960s, that optimism gave Leventhal the confidence that he and Joseph Shouvlin could balance the competing interests of the city’s public Community Hospital with Catholic-owned Mercy Medical Center as the two institutions sought to provide better healthcare in the time of the Baby Boom.
Shouvlin’s family contributed to Wittenberg’s Shouvlin Center.
Leventhal was effective “because he negotiated fairly,” said Jody Gatten of Columbus, a decades-long friend who had been planning to have lunch with Leventhal the day he died.
As president of Clark County’s League of Women Voters, she worked with Leventhal on creating local coalitions to increase the city income tax and then on passage in 1975 of Issues 7 and 6 to clear the city’s Core Block and erect the current City Hall.
Gatten said that, as a woman, she always appreciated the credit Leventhal gave to the part she played in the project, though sharing credit with all involved was always a part of Leventhal’s style.
Leventhal’s business and civic successes made him a strong candidate for the Wittenberg Board, and President Emeritus William A. Kinnison appointed him as a representative and liaison for Clark County.
Leventhal’s interest in making Springfield a better place for more people was reflected in his leadership in the passage of mental health levies, the capital campaign for the Rocking Horse Center, which serves the medical needs of underserved Springfielders, and his support of United Way.
The breadth of Leventhal’s involvement is reflected by his service on the boards of Security National Bank and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; and his selection to the Springfield Area Business Hall of Fame.
Leventhal will also be remembered by people like Springfielder Deborah Frazier O'Brien, who met him after he rallied Springfield's Wittenberg alumni to create a scholarship fund.
In a Facebook message posted after she learned of Leventhal's death O'Brien wrote: "I will never forget the day Lane Palmer Schlicher was awarded his Alumni Scholarship from Wittenberg University because of (Leventhal's) efforts. He said he went into the financial aid office the year before Lane started and said, 'I want the name of one student who deserves to be at Wittenberg, but would not be if it weren't for scholarships.' And that was when they gave him my son's name."
Using words similar to Interim President Helton’s, the Dayton Regional Chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews also honored Leventhal for “a life of good works and compassion that offers an exemplary model for all who would dedicate themselves to the service of others.”
In addition to his wife of 69 years and their two children and spouses, Leventhal is survived by five grandchildren, three step grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.
The family asks that donations be made to temple, the Fred R. Leventhal Lecture Series at Wittenberg University or the Fred R. Leventhal Scholarship Fund being established through the Springfield Foundation.
–Story courtesy of Tom Stafford ’76/Springfield News-Sun